If you’re fascinated by the idea of humans traveling through space and curious about how that all works, you’ve come to the right place.
“Houston We Have a Podcast” is the official podcast of the NASA Johnson Space Center from Houston, Texas, home for NASA’s astronauts and Mission Control Center. Listen to the brightest minds of America’s space agency – astronauts, engineers, scientists and program leaders – discuss exciting topics in engineering, science and technology, sharing their personal stories and expertise on every aspect of human spaceflight. Learn more about how the work being done will help send humans forward to the Moon and on to Mars in the Artemis program.
For Episode 132, Dr. Gary Kitmacher, communications and education mission manager for the International Space Station program, talks through the early concepts of space station design and introduces us to the astronomers, authors, and engineers that contributed to modern-day space travel and the International Space Station. This episode was recorded on January 14, 2020.
In celebration of 20 years of continuous human presence in space, check out this collection of “Houston We Have a Podcast” episodes about the International Space Station.
Gary Jordan (Host): Houston, we have a podcast. Welcome to the official podcast of the NASA Johnson Space Center, Episode 132, “Early Space Stations.” I’m Gary Jordan, and I’ll be your host today. If you’re new to the show, we bring in NASA experts, scientists, engineers, astronauts, historians. We bring them on to dive deep into everything human spaceflight. We’re coming up on 20 years of continuous human presence on the International Space Station, an orbiting platform that has provided countless insights into living and working in space. It’s brought us more of an understanding about the universe, about the effects of gravity, about the benefits that research can bring to all of humankind. The International Space Station has taught us what humans are truly capable of and inspired so many more to do and pursue great things, all because, in the pursuit of human space exploration, space stations have held an important status in its history. And generations of space explorers before us, and even early thinkers, knew this pursuit was so important. So today, we’re taking a journey through history and the history of space stations. Coming on the podcast today is Dr. Gary Kitmacher, communications and education mission manager in the International Space Station program. Kitmacher has worked at NASA for 35 years, and has written several books about space stations, including NASA’s “Reference Guide to the ISS,” and he’s also taught several courses about space stations, spaceflight, and space commercialization at MIT’s Sloane School of Management and the University of Houston. So, here we go. From concept on paper, to space stations of history, with Gary Kitmacher. Enjoy.
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Host: Gary Kitmacher, thanks so much for coming on the podcast today.
Gary Kitmacher: Thanks for having me, Gary.
Host: This is a very interesting topic, because we were talking a little bit just before starting this recording — this is a story — you know, I would think this is a story that starts with some of the first space stations. But it really goes back a lot earlier than that.
Gary Kitmacher: Really goes back to the Renaissance, and the famous astronomers, Copernicus and Galileo, and then Johannes Kepler, who comes along with the realization that space is a place, that these are planets that are different worlds, like the Earth. And Kepler writes a story about traveling to the planets, and talks about one day, there will be people who will be able to navigate and fly these space vehicles from one planet to another. So that’s really the beginning of space travel, is back in the late 1500s, early 1600s.
Host: Would you say these folks were dreaming about space as an unexplored landscape? Maybe that’s — maybe this is part of the genesis of that final frontier, but really something — dreamers can really start thinking about what it would be like, and how to conceptualize how space travel would work.
Gary Kitmacher: Yeah. Galileo with the first — one of the first telescopes could actually look at Venus, and Mars, and the Moon, and on the Moon, he saw craters, and mountains, and what he called seas. So, he was the first person to realize that there were actually places up there in the sky, but it took a little bit longer for Kepler to come along and realize that these different planets are worlds that can be visited on a — in a future time.
Host: So, this idea of worlds — where does the idea of a space station start coming in, this — where does that fit into the equation of how to explore these other worlds?
Gary Kitmacher: Well, beginning with the 1600s, or thereabouts, people wrote about space vehicles. And a couple of hundred years later, in the mid-1800s, we had a number of famous science fiction authors — Jules Verne is probably the one who is most famous, but Edward Everett Hale wrote a book for “The Atlantic Monthly,” a periodical that was distributed around the U.S. And he wrote about something which he called “The Brick Moon.” It was actually a satellite that went into orbit unexpectedly, and it was almost by mistake. And people were stuck on board, and so, this was the first space station. And it was used as a navigational aid for ships at sea, and this is in the 1860s, around the time of Abraham Lincoln.
Host: So, was it partially then due to fiction that maybe some of the later thinkers, some of the later engineers, started considering this as — or space stations as a usable platform, a — practical form of spaceflight and exploration?
Gary Kitmacher: Yeah, the — there were two themes, I guess you would call them, that ran from the late 1800s through the early 1900s. One was science fiction, and people — of course, this was the age of flight, first with balloons, and later with airplanes. And people thought, well, if you went beyond the sky, beyond the air, now you’re up in space. And they actually began to realize as early as the late 1700s that space was a place that had attributes like a vacuum. They realized that there was something called weightlessness if you were in an orbit around the Earth. So, a lot of the modern-day ideas of what we think about when we think about astronauts and space started with the first balloonists, and with balloons in the mid-1800s. So, there were a lot of science fiction stories along those lines, and at the same time, beginning around the 1870s, we had a theorist by the name of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, a Russian, and he wrote stories about space vehicles and space stations. He talks specifically about a space station — did not look like the space stations we think of today. It was somewhat conical in shape. It rotated in order to create artificial gravity, which was a common theme throughout a lot of these stories, and so a lot of his ideas spurred other people to be thinking, and a lot more stories began to pop up around the turn of the 19th to 20th century.
Host: So, this Konstantin — was he a storyteller? Was he more in academia? I think he did have some —
Gary Kitmacher: He was actually a schoolteacher in Russia. He was more of a theorist. He did not do too many practical experiments. He’s often cited as one of the fathers of spaceflight, along with Robert Goddard and the U.S., but Goddard did more experiments. He — although he wrote some stories about space travel, he actually built the first rockets, the first liquid-fuel rockets, and so, he was testing things that later the Germans in World War II attributed to their success in guided missiles with the V-2. So Tsiolkovsky was more of a thinker, rather than a doer.
Host: — OK. And I know thinking was a big part of the story of space stations. I know during this time, you mentioned particularly the design of a space station. One thing that popped up was a wheel, and that this was a — this was a common form of conceptualizing what a space station could be, if you start looking at some of the early designs.
Gary Kitmacher: As I said, Tsiolkovsky talked about a conical-shaped station that rotated, and then another theorist and author by the name of Herman Noordung came along in the 1920s. He was a young army officer in the Austro-Hungarian army, and he wrote a story, or a book called “The Problem of Space Travel.” And in that, he focused on the idea of a space station. He was really the first one to develop the idea of this wheel-shaped or torus-shaped space station. He — the space station spun in order to create artificial gravity. It used sunlight in order to create electrical power, and a lot of the modern-day ideas of what a space station should be comes from his work in 1927 or ’28.
Host: That’s right. Yeah, I know. So, it was — OK, so it was this Noordung guy that had more of the idea of the wheel, and this artificial gravity was one of the big drivers of why this wheel shape was, I guess, some of the first designs.
Gary Kitmacher: People envisioned at that time that you had to have artificial gravity. They knew all about weightlessness. Verne — Jules Verne in the 1860s wrote about the trip from the Earth to the Moon, and wrote all about weightlessness, and this idea of falling in space. And so, people thought you had to have artificial gravity in order to be able to operate in orbit, or in space.
Host: Yeah. Was this idea of space stations and space travel — was it popularized at this time, or was it among, maybe, a small group of thinkers, maybe through the early 1900s? One that comes to my mind, just from film class, is — I think it’s George Melies, “Man on the Moon.”
Gary Kitmacher: He actually produced the first film about the turn of the century about a trip to the Moon.
Host: “Trip to the Moon.”
Gary Kitmacher: And it in fact, it was based very much on Jules Verne’s’ 1860s story, but the movies of the 1930s were showing different space cadets who were flying around between the planets, fighting Martians for instance, and — which was another popular idea all through this time period. So, there was a — there was both the idea of thinking about real space travel that you had with people like Tsiolkovsky and Goddard, but also the science fiction story. One thing that was becoming understood around this time, by the 1930s, was you could, in fact, fly on a rocket, and you could use rockets and missiles for things like defense. And there was even the discussion about the idea of satellites, and so, people in a space station — some of the early thoughts about space stations were what we would call today a spacecraft or a satellite. It was just simply a vehicle that was in orbit around the Earth.
Host: So now, we’re moving from this idea of science fiction, and it being maybe a little bit more in pop culture, to a possible military application, the idea of rockets, and the idea of — and spaceflight as a military thing.
Gary Kitmacher: A lot of thought was going into these space stations about what could they be used for, and in fact, the idea that you could use it as a navigational aid, which we do today, of course, with GPS, goes back to the mid-1800s. But we were using reconnaissance airplanes and reconnaissance balloons from even before World War I, in the teens. And so, when we started thinking about vehicles that were in orbit around the Earth, these could be used for reconnaissance. They could be used to observe the weather. They could make measurements of astronomical events. For instance, one of the things that was studied quite a bit by the early aviators and early balloonists was a cosmic rays. They knew all about cosmic rays, and that they were greater at altitude. And so, they thought if you went up into space, you could study the environment surrounding the Earth and the solar system. So, there was a lot of discussion about what could we do with it?
Host: So then, where do we go from there? This discussion of what can we do with a space station, to human spaceflight now starting to take off, and this becoming not just a concept, but something that we are actively pursuing to go and create?
Gary Kitmacher: I think the real difference in that starts with Robert Goddard. In the 1920s, Goddard, first working out of Massachusetts, and later out of White Sands, what is today the White Sands missile range, was doing a series of studies looking at how to control rockets, how to steer rockets. He patented a lot of his work, and later, the Germans, under von Braun and some of the other German designers, attributed all of their success to the work that Goddard had pursued. The Germans come along with World War II, and they had both unmanned missiles, like the V1 buzz bomb and the V-2 ballistic missile, the very first ballistic missile. They also had manned rocket planes. The Bachem Natter was the first vehicle to ever take off vertically with a person on board. Person was killed when the canopy came loose, and he was decapitated.
Host: Oh, man.
Gary Kitmacher: And the vehicle was never successful, but it was supposed to be an interceptor to go up against allied bombers that were, of course, bombing Germany at that time. So, this is the first real technology that a few years later are going to go into both the unmanned and later the manned space programs.
Host: That’s right. And it was through this that we kicked off the space race with Russia, and now we have these two competing nations going head-to-head with human spaceflight.
Gary Kitmacher: By the — by World War II, and the years after World War II, a lot of these serious military people were studying the idea of reconnaissance satellites. They knew that if you built a little bit larger ballistic missile than the V-2, you could put a satellite in orbit. And if you had a satellite in orbit, you could put cameras onboard. The technology was not there yet to be able to broadcast TV pictures back that would have been very valuable, so instead, they were looking at film cameras that could drop pods with film. The problem was that we had a lot of reconnaissance airplanes flying over the Soviet Union, and a number of them were shot down. It was generally kept secret from the American public, but Eisenhower, who of course had depended on reconnaissance photos for his success in World War II, knew that this would be a very powerful tool, if he could have reconnaissance satellites. His concern was that the Russians, the Soviet Union was very concerned that the U.S. was flying over their territory without permission. And so, Wernher von Braun, in about 1956, was actually — had a rocket, and was capable of launching the first satellite. And he was told to stand down. Do not launch a satellite, and that was because Eisenhower wanted the Soviets to show the idea of free overflight, that satellites would be passing over the nations of the Earth with basically unlimited capability. And I talked to von Braun about this one time, as a matter of fact, when I was a college student. Von Braun came to give a lecture, and I asked him. You know, he had been very disappointed in ’56 about not launching the first satellite, and he told me, “Well, in the end, it worked out well, because there was a space race.” And he thought that, because of this, we made it to the Moon in his lifetime, which was a major objective.
Host: That was it. So, they had the technology, but it was more of a strategic idea to wait.
Gary Kitmacher: That’s right.
Host: OK and let the Soviets do it first. So then, that catapults us into the space race. Obviously, we all know that Sputnik launched, and from there, it wasn’t too long later that NASA was formed. Next thing you know, we’re entering some of the first human spaceflight programs.
Gary Kitmacher: NACA, National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, didn’t become NASA until 1958.
Gary Kitmacher: And so, they had been studying vehicles that could fly higher and faster. They had a whole series of X-planes, beginning in the late 1940s, in cooperation with the military, beginning with Chuck Yeager in the Bell-X1, and then the X2, and vehicles that could fly even faster. They were — the X-15 was on the drawing board. It would eventually make it to six times the speed of sound, and could actually reach space, but in a ballistic trajectory. They were looking at how could you send a person into orbit, and so, people like Max Faget here at the Manned Spacecraft Center, before it became Johnson Space Center, was looking at the idea of a small capsule that could carry a person. In some ways, the Russians were further along than we were. They had their great designer, Sergei Korolev, and he, once he had the first ballistic missile being tested in the mid-1950s, knew he was capable of launching a satellite. And their first satellite — he was able to get their Politburo to support the idea that this could be a reconnaissance satellite, or by changing out the pod that would carry the cameras, he could send up what he euphemistically called “biological samples,” which he was really thinking would be a human being. And they were developing that first satellite, that first sophisticated satellite, when they decided the Americans were getting a little bit too far along with our Vanguard project that was supposed to launch the first satellite, and then with von Braun capable of launching a satellite on his Redstone rocket, which became the Jupiter C. And so, they said, “We need to advance a little bit faster,” and so, they came up with the idea of what they called the “simple satellite,” which became Sputnik I. And so, in 1957, they first launched the first successful ballistic missile, and the very next launch was the first satellite, called Sputnik I. We were a little bit delayed. First, we were aiming to launch a satellite on the Vanguard, which was a totally new rocket, civilian rocket being developed by the U.S. Navy. We were not too successful with that. First one blew up on the launch pad in early December, shortly after the Sputnik launch in October. And so, von Braun was called in at that point, and told, “Can you get your missile” — that he’d been sitting on for two years by this time — “ready and launch a satellite?” He said, “Yeah, I can do it in the next couple of months.” And so, January 31st, 1958, he launched the first American satellite, Explorer I —
Host: Explorer — I, OK. So, skipping ahead, and making the space race itself a little bit briefer, you already mentioned that it was kind of a competition of technological prowess almost. You know, we had to be the first, but it was the Soviet Union that put the first man in space. I believe the Soviet Union had the first orbit, the first spacewalk. They had a lot of firsts. I think it was Kennedy who made that declaration to skip ahead, and shoot for the Moon, which is how that started.
Gary Kitmacher: Well, NASA had been studying the idea of sending people on a lunar flight, although initially, it was just a flight around the Moon, beginning in the late 1950s. The U.S. Army was competing with NASA. The military was competing. No one was sure at this point who would be in charge of the U.S. space program, and so, the U.S. Army, actually led by von Braun, who worked for the U.S. Army at that time, had a project, very top-secret, called Project Horizon. And it was going to put a Moon base up, and they would be using space stations in orbit around the Earth as a resupply depot. So, they would actually store fuel there. They would fuel the different spaceships as they would take off for the Moon. So, this is another recurring idea about a space station being used for future trips to the Moon, and later, the planets. In 1958, NASA’s formed. The civilian space program is basically turned over to NASA. Von Braun is turned over to NASA, and he becomes the director of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. And of course, the Manned Spacecraft Center is formed here in Houston, which becomes the Johnson Space Center after the death of Lyndon Johnson. So, the Johnson Space Center starts looking at what should we do next, and in 1961, shortly after he is elected president, Kennedy asks his vice president, Lyndon Johnson, “What should the U.S. do? What goals should we pursue? What can we beat the Russians at?” And they studied a number of options. One of them was a Moon landing. Another one was a space station, and because the Russians had these very large rockets, these very large ballistic missiles, the agreement was, well, the Russians, if they really wanted to, could launch space stations today. In order to get to the Moon, they’re going to need an even bigger rocket that they don’t have. And so, it was at that point in early 1961 that Kennedy decided we would try to go to the Moon, and we would do it, he announced, before the end of the 1960s. Actually, the initial date was in 1967. They thought they could do it. And so, that is what started us on a — on Project Apollo and the first Moon landing. The Russians were also — got into the Moon landing phase, although there was a lot of disagreement over this in the mid-1960s. A lot of people wondered — were the Russians really competing to go to the Moon? But we know now that they were. They were building a large Moon rocket, along the lines of the Saturn 5, the U.S. Moon rocket. Theirs was called the N-1. For those of us who have gone to Baikonur, and traveled around that area, there are remnants of N-1s all over the place. And you may have seen some of them that are used as storage sheds, and children’s sandboxes, and so on. But they were developing them, and they attempted to launch it several times, all of which were unsuccessful. It was a pretty complex vehicle, had a lot of engines on the first stage. One of the problems was, they could never get all the engines to work simultaneously. Now, their N-1 rocket not only was going to be used to launch their Moon ship, but they were also going to use it to launch a very large space station. And they were thinking right through the 1960s about the idea of a space station. They had lots of designs for them, but they really were not catapulted, I guess, into the space station race until we were successful at landing on the Moon. At that point, they decided, well, if the Americans are successful landing on the Moon, maybe we’d better be successful at launching the first space station. They were thinking about different kinds of space stations. One of them was a military space station called the Almaz. They weren’t the only ones thinking about military space stations. We in the U.S. — the U.S. Air Force was pursuing a program called Manned Orbiting Laboratory, and so we were going to try and launch a space station in the mid to late 1960s. And their Almaz was going to compete with that. The MOL – [Manned Orbiting Laboratory] — was canceled the same week as the Apollo 11 Moon landing, July 1969, in favor of a NASA project which became called Skylab. And so, Skylab became our first space station. When we announced that we would have Skylab in orbit in 1973 or four, the Russians decided we’d better have our space station in orbit a little bit earlier. Almaz was not ready at that point. The N-1 rocket was not working, and so, they came up with the idea of a small modular space station based in part on the Soyuz spaceship. It actually used Soyuz systems, used Soyuz solar panels, and so, that became their first space station, Salyut 1, which was launched in 1971.
Host: And what did they do on Salyut 1?
Gary Kitmacher: The first flight was unsuccessful and was not able to dock properly with the Salyut, but the second mission up there by a Soyuz was successful. And so, three cosmonauts lived on board for just about a month, and because the U.S. had been publicizing the Moon landings by this time, the Russians decided they would publicize this crew living onboard the space station. So, they actually had a special series of TV programs every evening. The crew would broadcast images down to Russia, and so, they considered that a great success, until, on the last day, when the Soyuz reentered. There was a valve that inadvertently opened, allowed all the air to escape, and the spacecraft landed as it should, but all the cosmonauts were found dead inside.
Host: That’s right. It was shortly after that that they introduced the pressurized Sokol suits, right?
Gary Kitmacher: Because of the earlier spacecraft, such as the Vostok, and — they had stopped wearing pressure suits regularly in the mid-1960s. Before that, they had to wear pressure suits, because the cosmonauts had to bail out of the spacecraft. They did not land inside. They landed in a separate parachute.
Host: Oh, wow.
Gary Kitmacher: So, the first Soyuz’s were launched without pressure suits, and after the Salyut 1 depressurization, they did have to add pressure suits.
Host: Oh, wow. The early spacecraft didn’t land with chutes. They had to jump out of the spacecraft while it was falling?
Gary Kitmacher: Well, the early spacecraft was very heavy, and it also was designed around this idea of a photographic pod being deployed separately. And so, the capability was there to eject out a cosmonaut. So, on their first spacecraft, the Vostoks, the cosmonauts would always eject out, and land separately. On Voskhod 1, we were getting ready in 1964 to send the first two-man crews up. The Soviets decided, well, if the U.S. is going to launch two-man crews, they would send up the first three-man crew. And they took the Vostok spaceship, which was only designed for one person. They basically stripped the interior out. There was not enough space for spacesuits, and so, a lot of the Russian engineers, by the way, opposed this idea. But they went ahead. They put three cosmonauts onboard, but in order to make a soft landing, they had a last-minute rocket that would slow them down. So, they used a parachute, but then a rocket — retro-rocket that would slow them down at the very last second. They used the same approach on Voskhod 2, which was the first spacewalk by Alexei Leonov in 1965. There were supposed to be several more Voskhod missions, but they were all canceled in favor of Soyuz by that time.
Host: Oh, wow. So how long did Salyut continue on, and then, when did we really start thinking about taking some of the Apollo hardware and going ahead with Skylab?
Gary Kitmacher: We were thinking about a Skylab all through the 1960s. We had a program — wasn’t really a program. It was a study called “Apollo Applications” that we were looking at, what could we do with the Apollo hardware. Could we build a space station? Could we build long-term bases on the Moon? And ultimately, out of that came the Skylab program. The Russians, unsuccessful with a large Moon rocket, had to focus on the smaller space stations, which they called Salyut. First one went up in ’71, and they had a series of about eight of them between then and 1986. Not all of them successfully made the — made it into orbit. I think out of a total, there were about four or five that were successful. In the later stages of that, on Salyut 6 and Salyut 7, they would launch up not just the main core of the space station, but they would send up an additional module or two that would dock to it, that would allow them to expand the space station. Skylab, on the U.S. side, went up as one large space station. It basically folded up and unfolded once it reached orbit. The astronauts went up in an Apollo capsule. It was sent up essentially loaded with all of the supplies they would need for three missions. The last mission, on Skylab 4, which was the third crew of astronauts, stayed for almost three months. They extended the mission in order to observe a comet that had been discovered earlier that year, Comet Kohoutek. The astronauts got down to rationing food bars, and some of the astronauts said that was the most difficult part of the flight, was the fact that they had nothing to eat for the last several weeks. In the meantime, the Soviets were launching up these Salyut space stations with these large resupply modules. They had been designing a follow-on module, actually part of the Almaz program, and these follow-on modules were supposed to carry up a space capsule called a [Russian acronym for Transport Supply Spacecraft] TKS, that looked very much like an Apollo, an American Apollo ship. They took the Apollo ship off, and they sent them up unmanned. And they perfected this idea of unmanned rendezvous and docking. So, they were ahead of us in that way also, and so, the first modular space stations were Salyut 6 and 7 in the early 1980s. And then, they decided, well, [Name of the Russian Space Station] Mir would be the true modular space station. They were all launched by the smaller Proton rocket, and they were composed of a central module that was based on their civilian space station, the true Salyut, and a series of additional modules that were based on their military space station, the Almaz. And so, Mir had the main core module, the base block, they would call it, and in time, they would add four additional large modules — actually five, if you include Quant 2, which was a module designed to go up on their space shuttle, and the docking module that would actually go up on an American shuttle.
Host: So, a lot of the lessons about constructing and operating a modular space station was learned on Salyut, and then maybe perfected or enhanced in some way on Mir?
Gary Kitmacher: It was — I wouldn’t say it was perfected. Mir had a lot of problems, because it was only supposed to last for five years. And instead, they kept it going for about 15 years.
Gary Kitmacher: And so, a lot of the systems were breaking down. One of the problems that the Russians did have was the lack of a logistics capability. They had intended for the Buran space shuttle, the Russian space shuttle, to service the space station, and after its first flight, they canceled the Buran program. And so, they had very little capability to return anything to the ground until the U.S. started flying space shuttles there. But they did perfect the idea of these modules coming in, operating truly independently on their own, autonomously. And then, when the U.S. got involved with the Russians in the 1990s, we actually worked with them, developed a lot of their integration processes, and developed a lot of the hardware that we use even today on the ISS.
Host: So, I want to back up for a second to Skylab, because I do feel like it is a different concept from what we’re talking about with Salyut and with Mir. You said it was one big element. It was a — it was spun off from this idea to reuse Apollo hardware for something, and they came up with this large station. You talked about three crews living on Skylab. What did Skylab show the United States, in terms of living and working in space? Because at the time, these missions — that last one you said was three months. That was the longest we’ve ever been living and working in space. So, what did that show us about how —
Gary Kitmacher: Skylab actually grew out of a program that first was thought about in the mid-1950s by one of the German engineers, Krafft Ehricke, who worked for the U.S. Air Force on the Atlas [Intercontinental ballistic missile] ICBM missile. And as one of the ideas of what else could we do with the Atlas, Krafft Ericke thought about if we could launch these missiles into orbit around the Earth, we could evacuate them, fill them with air, and then people could live onboard. And it would be the first space station. That was not followed too seriously, but then, in 1961, in London, England, they were putting on a home show. And the British asked the U.S. McDonald Company, which was building Mercury and Gemini spaceships, “Can you design us a space station to put on exhibit in our home show in London?” And they thought about the idea of a second stage of a Saturn rocket being used as a space station, and that was actually built in full-scale, and on display in London in 1960. Wernher von Braun comes along, and initially, the Apollo program was going to launch up a series of Apollo command service modules and lunar modules on smaller Saturn 1 or upgraded Saturn 1 rockets. And so, they were building a lot of these rockets. When the Apollo fire occurred in 1967, and Apollo was already running behind schedule, the associate administrator for spaceflight decided we could not afford to launch all these earlier Apollo ships. We would just go directly to using the Saturn 5 rocket and test out the command service and lunar modules together. This left a lot of these smaller Saturn 1 rockets available. And von Braun started thinking about using the evacuated upper stage of the Saturn rocket as a space station. Actually, they didn’t call it a space station, it was going to be, they termed it an orbital workshop. And a lot of the early ideas were not for a space station at all, they were simply going to open up a hatch and the astronauts would be able to go in and essentially be able to do an EVA inside of this upper stage. Von Braun and George Miller, who was the Associate Administrator, dove into the water tank at the Marshall Space Center and actually tried to unbolt the hatch on one these Saturn upper stages and they were unsuccessful. And they said there was no way you’d ever be able to get it open in orbit. About that time in 1967 or ’68, the Apollo Program even though they had not flown the first mission yet, was already being cut back. They had decided to cancel several of the Apollo missions, originally, they were going to go to Apollo 25. And they were only going to do Apollo 20 at that point. And so, Miller decided well, we will use the last Saturn 5 rocket to launch a space station. So, they basically took one of the Saturn Moon rockets, decided it would be used. They integrated around this upper stage, the second stage of Saturn 1, third stage of a Saturn 5. There were a lot of studies at this time by Robert Gilruth, who was the director here at the Johnson Space Center at the Manned Spacecraft Center, what could we do with the space station? And they decided they needed to enlist the support of scientists. And so, they went — after scientists who were doing astronomical work and solar observations. They went after Earth observation scientists, Earth resources. And so here at the Manned Spacecraft Center we started up some new projects to actually incorporate science into the program. We already had a pretty active life sciences program, studying human beings in orbit and in space. So, between these three themes of astronomical observations, Earth observations, and human life sciences, these were the main themes of the Skylab program. And so, they built a large solar observatory. They had a large package of Earth observation experiments. And they had a lot of life science experiments all focused on human beings. The one problem with the Skylab was it was going to be launched as a single unit, fully loaded. And so that somewhat limited its lifetime and its ability to be extended. Some people were thinking as the space shuttle was coming along later in the 1970s, well, we could just save the Skylab and it could become a space station, but the people who actually manage the Skylab, Kenny Kleinknecht, who was the program manager, Bob Thompson, who developed a lot of the ideas that the systems were never designed for an extended capability. So, they never thought seriously about extending Skylab at all. And as it turned out, the shuttle was ready too late and so Skylab, because of solar flares, had reentered the Earth’s atmosphere early in 1979. And there is a backup Skylab. But by that time, they had shut down all the Saturn rocket activity. And so that backup Skylab is on display today at the Smithsonian up in Washington D.C.
Host: That’s right. I’ve seen it. So, I know you mentioned the shuttle that was what we were looking forward to. That shuttle eventually came online in the ’80s. And I know there’s a story of it being integrated with Mir in terms of its story with space station, in terms of early story at least, as well as something called Spacelab.
Gary Kitmacher: In 1975, we first — we flew the first mission with the Russians called ASTP, [Apollo-Soyuz Test Project], which we docked the last Apollo capsule, the last American Apollo with a Russian Soyuz. And we had a lot of thoughts about launching space shuttles to dock with the space station. But because of the Cold War, that really never took off. And we kind of went our separate ways for a long time, until the Soviet Union fell at the beginning of the 1990s. And then we were looking at ways to work cooperatively with the Russians, help shore up the Russian Space Program in order to support their science and technical organizations. And so, we — although there were had been thoughts earlier about docking a shuttle with a Salyut and later a Mir Space Station, really didn’t happen until the 1990s. At the same time, on the NASA side in the U.S., we were trying to build the space shuttle. And right from the very beginning, the shuttle was intended to be an assembly and servicing vehicle for a space station. The first shuttle, of course, was ready for launch in 1981. And although the NASA management was trying to get congressional and presidential support for a space station, the President kept deferring it. And Jimmy Carter was not a big fan of the space program. They felt lucky that they kept the shuttle going. Ronald Reagan, they thought was more amenable to supporting a space station, but even he did not come across with support early on. And so, we flew the first number of shuttle flights. At the same time the European Space Agency came in and said we would like to work cooperatively with the U.S., and help to develop our own European Space Program, how about if we build you a space laboratory that would go inside the space shuttle. And that became the European Space Agency Spacelab. So, they started working on the Spacelab in the late 1970s. And it flew I think on the first — the first flight was on STS-9, in 1983, I believe, if I recall correctly. And we flew a number of flights with the Spacelab. Other people came along with similar ideas. There was a commercial group called the Spacehab, which we think today about the commercialization of space going full speed ahead with SpaceX and Boeing in the CST-100 and so on. But really the first big manned commercial space program was Spacehab that launched for the first time on STS-57, and that was a commercially owned module. There were others who were less successful. For instance, Max Faget, after he retired from NASA wanted to build a small space station that he called the Industrial Space Facility, and he was never successful with that. There were a lot of ideas that were carried on into other programs, but the ISF never actually happened.
Host: So, I guess Spacelab was our kind of in between cooperative way of having some way to work and live in space and figure out how that works. And then moving forward to Mir, that was a way to, A, work cooperatively with Russia, but sort of the same thing, the shuttle docked to the Mir space station, and then we had astronauts and cosmonauts living and working on that.
Gary Kitmacher: Yeah. There were whole series of Spacelab flights, Europeans working together with the U.S. on the shuttle. Some of the Spacelab flights were basically operated and managed by the European Space Agency. Others were operated by NASA, some were operated by specific countries, Japan or Germany. And there were a whole series of them. The Europeans especially were working very closely with the Russians. They had a number of their own French and European cosmonauts who flew the Salyut space stations and then later on the Mir space station. And then in 1991 the U.S. started looking at the Space Station Freedom and how could we do things cooperatively with the Russians? One of the first things we looked at was, could we use any of the Russian hardware for the Freedom Space Station. And we thought about using the Soyuz as an emergency rescue vehicle. And the first group of American of NASA managers went over to Russia. And they saw not only do they have the Soyuz spaceship, they have an airlock and docking module that they had built and designed for their Buran shuttle. And the Buran shuttle and the U.S. shuttle were both very similar in size and capabilities. And so, they looked at using those modules together with the U.S. shuttle and the Mir space station. Then we started talking about doing flights of cosmonauts on the U.S. shuttle and of astronauts on the Mir, and that happened. The first two cosmonauts, who were Sergei Krikalev and Vladimir Titov came to work here in the U.S. and we trained them for some of the early Spacehab missions. And so, we worked very closely with them. Norm Thagard and Bonnie Dunbar became our first astronauts to go to work with the Russians over in Russia. They were trained as cosmonauts to go up on the Mir space station. And almost as soon as that got started we started talking about a series of docking missions with the Mir. The initial docking mission would bring a Spacelab module up to the Mir so that we could actually use it to do the human life science studies on the first astronaut to be returning on the shuttle, which became Norm Thagard in 1995. But then we started talking about an additional six to ten docking missions with Mir, which became a whole series of shuttle Mir flights. We started with STS-71 in ’95. And I think the last flight was STS-91 in 1998.
Host: Were we still talking in the backgrounds about another space station? You did mention Space Station Freedom in the early ’90s. But the shuttle Mir was through the ’90s. How was that — what was going on in the background for planning for the future?
Gary Kitmacher: Well, the Freedom Space Station got started in 1984. And originally, the plan was that we were going to have it in orbit operating by the 500th anniversary of Columbus in in 1992. But by 1990, 1991 we weren’t really that far along with the Freedom Space Station. We started talking with the Russians. The Russians had had plans for a much larger space station, and so we started discussing what the Russians ideas of maybe their space station could join our space station. And we would have one large International Space Station, which is exactly what happened. Even before that we started working with them on the Mir. And the U.S. essentially bought and paid for two of the modules that would go up to Mir, the last two modules on Mir called Priroda and Spektr. And so, they were launched in 1995 in 1996. And we actually test a lot of the International Space Station hardware on those two modules. So, we’re responsible for a lot of the electrical power systems, the computer systems, the stowage and logistic systems. So, a lot of that was actually tested out first on Mir and is still in use on the ISS, on the International Space Station today. When the Russians joined the program, we were still using the Freedom hardware pretty much, the modules, the nodes, the whole structure of the space station today is pretty much what was initially envisioned for the Freedom Space Station starting in the mid-1980s. But when the Russians joined the program we renamed it the International Space Station. And by that time, in 1993, or thereabouts, we’d already been working for quite a long time with the Japanese and with the Europeans, so they were fully invested in the program. And in 1998, of course, we launched the very first module of the International Space Station, which was one of those Almaz military modules that the Russians had developed starting in the late 1960s. And so, the FGB, which was the first module of the space station, was very important, very critical in terms of saving us a lot of money because it provided the electrical power, the guidance and control systems, the propulsion systems, a lot of things that the U.S. no longer had to develop for the International Space Station.
Host: So, where does the story of the space — of the International Space Station go from there? We’re launching Zarya FGB in ’98, how do we — more from collaborating, you talked about there was already a strong foundation of collaboration, the end of Mir and the rise of the construction of space station going forward.
Gary Kitmacher: Well, we were talking, some of us would have liked to have seen our modules that we had designed and built from Mir continue on to the International Space Station. And so, some of us actually tried to talk the program manager at that time, Randy Brinkley, into having the Mir and the International Space Station in a coplanar orbits. And so, we would be able to visit from one to the other and carry over hardware and modules. But the program manager was not too enthusiastic about that. And so, the Spektr and Priroda modules really did not get the kind of use that they might have had otherwise.
Host: Those were modules you worked on?
Gary Kitmacher: Those were modules — I was the lead U.S. manager on Priroda. And so, we barely began to use them quite honestly.
Gary Kitmacher: In the meantime, the U.S. wanted to focus fully on the International Space Station. So, we began to do that in 1998. We were very dependent on the core module, the base block, what would become on the International Space Station the service module of the International Space Station, because that was our initial habitation quarters that provided the life support equipment. And the Russians had a very limited capability to produce these modules. They basically only had one set of workers and they had been working for 25 years by this time. And so, they would build one module and then they would go on to the next module. So, the FGB was in work until it launched. And then they got started really on the surface module, and outfitting and finishing it, so we knew it wasn’t going to be ready for immediate launch. And it wasn’t until about 2000 and that was when we sent the first crew up to take up life on the International Space Station. The Mir in the meantime, reentered in 2001, burned up in the atmosphere as it did so, and it had enjoyed, as I say, a 15 plus year lifespan, when it was only originally intended to last for about five years. The Russians did not let Mir die that easily, they wanted to go back. But quite honestly, without the support of the U.S. and the shuttle, they really could not do both programs together. And so, they did let Mir die. There were a lot of toasts to it as it reentered and then they turn their full attention to the International Space Station.
Host: All right. Well, Gary, I think that’s a that’s a good place to end this discussion for now. What we did was we talked about a brief history of space stations, up to just the beginning of the International Space Station. And I really believe that we should split this into another part and just talk space station, and the progression of that, because right now we’re still at 1998. We talked about Mir deorbiting in 2001. But really give the International Space Station the justice it deserves. Gary Kitmacher, thank you so much for going through this really brief but fascinating discussion about space stations. Let’s continue this. Let’s keep going.
Gary Kitmacher: I enjoy doing it, anytime.
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Host: Hey, thanks for sticking around. Fascinating conversation we had with Dr. Gary Kitmacher today about early space stations. Kind of ran out of time, so we’re going to make this a two-parter. This will just be focusing on the early space stations. Tune in next week, because we’ll come back with Dr. Gary Kitmacher to talk about the International Space Station. And then afterwards what’s to come. If you liked this podcast, we just kicked off a collection of our International Space Station episodes, some of our favorites throughout the two years that we’ve been doing podcasts. You can go to NASA.gov/podcast to find us, Houston We Have a Podcast. There’s a little tab over to the side called HWHAP Space Station episodes, H-W-H-A-P, Space Station episodes, just go there and you can see our whole collection. We got this one coming out and then the next Gary Kitmacher episode to come. If you want to know more about the International Space Station, NASA.gov/ISS. If you like social media, the ISS is there, too, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, just search International Space Station. Use the hashtag #askNASA on your favorite platform to submit an idea for the show. And make sure to mention it’s for Houston We Have a Podcast. A quick plug for our student listeners out there. Research in the microgravity environment of the International Space Station is still as important as ever and to celebrate 20 years of continuous human presence, both living and working in space, our STEM On Station Team here at the Johnson Space Center will fund five student design payloads to fly to and return from the International Space Station as part of the student payload opportunity with citizen science, or SPOCS, S-P-O-C-S. For more information and to submit proposals, check out NASA.gov/STEMonstation/SPOCS, S-P-O-C-S. Mark it on your calendars that submissions are due by 5 p.m. Eastern on March 27th, 2020. This episode was recorded on January 14, 2020. Thanks to Alex Perryman, Pat Ryan, Norah Moran, Belinda Pulido and Kelly Humphries. Thanks again to Dr. Gary Kitmacher for coming on the show. Give us a rating and some feedback on whatever platform you’re listening to us on and tell us what you think of the show. We’ll be back next week.